With cooler days approaching, many home gardens are harvesting their summer vegetables with a heavy heart, knowing the season is ending.
Although the days of swimming pools and ice cream trucks are behind us, fall is an excellent time for vegetables. Proper care of summer vegetables can long extend their season, while new plants, most often thought of as spring vegetables, are ready once again to be planted.
First, to keep what you have. Tomatoes, peppers, okra, eggplant and sweet potatoes may continue to grow and put on fruit through the cooler months.
With these established plants, gardeners should be careful not to overwater. By now these plants should have a well-established root system and won’t need the same amount of irrigation they received in the intense Kansas summer days. They won’t need additional fertilization either.
The biggest concern with these summer vegetables will be frost, which likely will end their production. To protect against a minor frost — especially an early frost — cover them with a breathable material. You can purchase row covers or use what you have. Sheets, towels and cardboard all work as long as they aren’t heavy enough to break stems, or placed in such a way to break them.
Now, to plant something new. Most of the plants you had in your spring garden are perfect for your fall garden. Cucumbers, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, summer squash, leafy greens, beets, carrots and beans all can be grown in the fall.
One plant that isn’t well-suited for fall is peas. The cold temperatures they require for seed germination can’t be met in early fall.
Although suitable for fall weather, there are some unique considerations with this timing. Plants in the Brassicacea family (broccoli, cauliflower and brussels sprouts) should be planted by seed, rather than transplants, and thinned to one plant per 1 foot of row when they’re about half an inch tall.
Beets and carrots will need adequate moisture in order to emerge from the soil. A sprinkle of compost or even sand may aid in their ability to break the soil surface by preventing crusting.
Lettuce is extremely frost-sensitive, showing marginal burning with even a light frost. Fortunately, the inner leaves are usually safe, making it possible to harvest this salad favorite later than other greens.
Spinach and kale are excellent choices for the fall and also have some success overwintering. Enjoy eating both in the fall, but don’t harvest all the leaves. By allowing some leaves to remain and applying a light mulch, they likely will reappear in your spring garden.
Care of a fall garden is similar to other times of the year. Although many parts of Kansas receive adequate rainfall in the fall, it’s important to monitor your soil’s moisture. Many of the cool-season crops planted in the fall can tolerate heat as long as there is sufficient moisture available.
Adding organic matter prior to planting fall vegetables may actually increase the likelihood your soil will dry out. Instead, save this application for late fall.
Brassicas and leafy greens need fertilization two weeks after transplanting, or four weeks after sowing the seeds. Four tablespoons of a high-nitrogen, all-purpose garden fertilizer per 10 feet of row will help ensure lush growth. Other vegetables won’t require additional fertilization.
Planting times for all fall crops vary greatly, with some needing a late-July start and others tolerating a mid-September initiation. For a complete vegetable garden calendar, reference K-State Research and Extension’s “Kansas Garden Guide” (bookstore.ksre.ksu.edu/pubs/S51.pdf).
Don’t let fall pass by without delicious, fresh produce.
Ariel Whitely is a horticulturist with K-State Research and Extension in Shawnee County.